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Being Smart or Being Tough – Which Will Save Your Life? By Derek Smith

When contemplating how to prepare for real life survival and combat there is often a debate on whether you need to be smart to survive an encounter or if you should be the toughest mother around. Well I plan to explore this for you in this article and give you my opinion on this matter.

Two Approaches to Self-Defense

There are two broad categories of self-defense that is often discussed or taught in self-defense courses: mental preparedness and physical preparedness.

Physical preparedness is based on developing physical skills as a solution for self-defense encounters. This means you will spend time learning various, and hopefully good, ways to punch, kick, and grapple with an attacker. Instructors sometimes mention avoiding physical confrontation if possible, but mainly teaches ways to deal with physical attacks if you are confronted. Whether you start taking full blown martial arts classes or sign up for a self-defense course the focus is on teaching you physical techniques you can use in a self-defense situation.

The main thought here is that you are training your BODY to be your weapon and the more you learn and train the better you become with your self-defense techniques, making you and your loved ones safer because you can defend them and yourself.

Mental preparedness on the other hand is focused on learning theories, concepts and strategies for personal protection. Let’s face it, there are some people who don’t want to, or are incapable (due to physical limitation), of learning self-defense moves. So this theory-based approach involves your learning about and understanding attack situations; how they happen, how you can anticipate and recognize them, how you can avoid these encounters all together and how to respond if you encounter one.

With mental preparedness your BRAIN becomes your most powerful self-defense weapon, and your training supposedly makes you “SMARTER” and more capable of making the right decisions during a chaotic self-defense situation.

Physical preparedness involves efficiently learning and practicing physical techniques. The more proficient you become at executing your techniques faster, with more coordination, more power, the more confident you become about being able to handle yourself in a real life attack situation.

Many self-defense courses deal entirely with learning techniques as a TOTAL solution for all your self-defense needs. There is nothing entirely wrong with this approach. I teach many physical skills in my classes and DVDs and learning physical skills can dramatically improve your chances of surviving an attack situation.

If the techniques you learn are truly effective and you practice them regularly, you will become more effective at protecting yourself. BUT is this approach alone an effective “self-defense solution?”

Let’s take a closer look!

Physical skills training, if properly conducted, is a GREAT, and often fun way to get you into fighting shape and preparing you for self-defense scenario. You will build self-confidence and self-esteem, especially knowing that you are now less of a victim than before you started your training. And if you carry yourself in a more confident manner, you are probably less likely to be attacked.

People often tell me that I look like a soldier or a cop, and I think this is one reason why potential attackers are less likely to choose me as their pray. This was not always the case before I learned how to thoroughly protect myself. And I believe that by understanding how to protect myself, and knowing I can defend myself in most situations, I come off as someone you should not mess with and I have no fear of the punks I see on the streets.

Hopefully you will NEVER have to defend yourself, but with regular martial arts or self-defense training you know you will be able to if the need arises.

Now here is the problem:

If you limit your self-defense training only to developing physical skills, you severely limit your response options in an attack scenario. What I mean here is that you are essentially limited to a fight or flight mode. You either do battle or you run. However, there are other ways to resolve an attack scenario than these two.

Making the wrong choice, like fighting when you don’t have to, can get you killed, hurt, arrested and possibly sued. You don’t want any of these outcomes. While your training makes you THINK you can handle just about any situation, don’t make the mistake of over estimating your potential and end up getting your ass kicked by someone who is tougher, meaner and more malicious than you are.

Mental Preparedness for Self-Defense

So this brings me to the mental aspect of training. Even the “best” fighter will be get his ass whipped if he or she doesn’t have the proper awareness and avoidance skills, or is caught off guard. Your best physical techniques won’t do jack if you are surprised by an unanticipated attack. This is where your mental preparedness comes into play. Through mental training you learn to recognize the “big picture” of attack scenarios.

Think about the type of training I did as an agent. We were all trained to shoot at an expert level so we could make the shot, but we had to also be able to make the “right” call before making the shot. We were not shooting at just paper targets in the field. To practice this we used simulators that would also train our minds to react in the proper manner during a shoot, no shoot situation.

The intent of this mental training was to make us “smarter” agents, better capable of avoiding, diffusing or responding appropriately to an attack scenario. So in essence mental training will help you to use the most effective response possible if you are attacked. Fighting back with physical self-defense techniques is only part of self-defense. Making the correct decision is also essential. More on that later, let’s explore mental preparedness a bit more.

Mental Preparedness Benefits

When you accurately understand the dynamics of an attack your odds of anticipating, avoiding, recognizing and responding to that attack increases. The “best” outcome of a potential attack is not when you fight your way out of it. It’s when you are able to avoid it in the first place! Although SEALS, Delta Forces, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and other operators can fight, our first inclination is to avoid any physical contact when completing a mission (unless the objective is to do otherwise.)

We, as agents, realize that not all volatile situations can be resolved by fighting. We needed to be able to assess the situation to select the most effective response for dealing with it, and you need to be able to do the same. Proper mental training will decrease the stress and fear associated with attack scenarios and provide you the control and self-confidence you need to successfully defend yourself.

Now here is the drawback though.

If your training is only mental and does not develop the physical skills needed should you have to resort to combat, then you may end up getting the shit kicked out of you, no matter how mentally prepared you are. Knowing the best response option in a given situation, be it running away or fighting back, is of little value if you don’t know how to fight. I have run across MANY people who THINK they can fight, but really can’t.

Just this past 4th of July weekend I had two of my brothers visiting from out of town. One is 35 and the other is 36. I am 53 and they were talking about how they would kick my old ass. I took them to my basement training area, got them on the mats, and was able to finish both of them off in not minutes, but seconds. I even resorted to letting them get me in certain scenarios to make it easier for them and that did not help either. Now both of these guys are former Chicago gang bangers who THOUGHT they knew a lot about fighting and have done plenty of it. My point here is that if you haven’t developed your skills and fitness levels by ongoing martial art or self-defense practice, how likely are you to out-run or out-fight an assailant?

So What’s My Point?

Now let’s get to the nitty gritty. If you have stuck with me this long you probably realize that choosing ONE OR THE OTHER of these two approaches is an incomplete method for self-defense. I think the BEST STRATEGY is to do what I do and teach, which is to combine your effective self-defense training with your ability to make smart self-defense decisions.

BOTH mental AND physical preparation is essential to optimal self-defense success. There’s always someone tougher and meaner than you are! Even highly skilled fighters and martial artists like me need awareness and avoidance skills, that’s why they teach them to us. Our physical training is of little value to us if we don’t have the proper mental skills to complement it.
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41 thoughts on “Being Smart or Being Tough – Which Will Save Your Life? By Derek Smith”

  1. This is good advice, you need to be prepared both mentally to do what is necessary when and if the comes,and physically able to do so. Thank you for the info.

  2. Barry B, you are correct. If you cannot stomach doing what needs to be done in a situation, all the martial arts training in the world will not help you. Once a guy grabbed me by the collar and I put him in a hapkido finger lock. His finger dislocated so easily that I was shocked. He screamed in pain and I screamed just as loud in shock of what I had done.

  3. This is my 3rd attempt to make a constructive comment. Ten years Military and Ten years Law Enforcement. From a Brown Belt to a Civilian in 20at the end of the ninety’s and now I’m 64. There is one part of training I haven’t come across. That is how to prepare for feeling full impact. I haven’t broken bricks just boards and learned how to absorb the shock. I did this on my basement walls or a secluded tree. You learn to hit harder things than a bag. Just don’t hurt yourself.

  4. It takes both Mental and Physical preparedness! Mental includes spiritually also so you are ready and at peace with the creator.

    I knew about US navy retired folks settling in the Ozarks! Now I know why! I’m not doing anything with neighborhood watch until this passes!

    Clean energy to desalinate ocean water and grow more food crops so wars will not be fought over water and food. Thorium molten salt reactors are the best new nuclear for a brighter future.
    Starting more wars instead of stopping pollution of coal burning can be the end of civilization!

  5. As always your advise is right on the mark in my opnion but you still need to have the right mind set or you’ve lost the fight even before it starts.

    Thanks again,

    Barry B.

  6. I believe its both mental and physical ,,mentaly im still a marine and I work out on a regular basis both with my body and with my method of defense ,,my rifles and camophage I have the gear to do that and make use of it ,,I suppose the people round here think its strange but I dont care what they think ,,it will pay off when its necessary …Semper Fi

  7. I have always believed your mental preparedness increases your physical strength and control, the mind controls the body. For example when you train long enough the mussels develop a memory so when you execute a move it is done before you have finished thinking of the move.
    30 years of training with an open mind has show me that, Which is why I enjoy ‘Fast Fist’ and all of the different applications. Thank you

  8. I like walking around the English countryside. So I often wear working men’s boots and a weatherproof hi-vis yellow jacket. I get the impression this makes me look like a “Tough Target”. So it could be a totally non-violent strategy to help people avoid dodgy situations. Having said that, I reckon most fiddly Martial Arts skills would vanish when confronted with an unexpected situation. Any Self-Defence method which doesn’t include sparring is likely to be ineffective. You’d be better off just developing ordinary strength & fitness.

  9. I think both are equally as important as the other. In just about any given situation if done right both are needed. I see the Mind as a defense mechanism of the body also not just the other strengths and muscles. Took train them both in both areas and hopefully when the time comes and you have the total package to deal with it. Thanks

  10. This sounds like a good program for someone who might have little or no training in self-defense or basic boxing, wrestling , etc., General overall conditioning sometimes in their life , but to meet a bully on the street who means to harm you is bad news with or without a weapon in their hands. Smart or tough won’t help if you are not in some kind shape to withstand the onslaught from a perpetrator who wants to harm you…

  11. Good choice as a former active Marine and correctiona; officer. We all should be prepaired. Because the government doesn
    t care about us only how much money we can give to them.

  12. Hi Derek,

    Great article… I agree that you need to develop both mental and physical capabilities in or to have a greater chance of success. If you ONLY develop the physical side, you run the risk of completely FREEZING in a defence situation. By developing your metal side, this give you the techniques to reduce this happening.

  13. Mental and physical wellness go hand in hand . When your life on the line .A little help from the big fella upstairs never hurts either

  14. You are so ‘right on’ about needing both physical & mental smarts! As a former Navy operator, I did a lot of independent operations, I in/out.

    My situational awareness was 110%! Why, i only had one resource, me.

    All the weaponry, ammo, and equipment won’t do a damn bit of good if you stumble into a whole company of enemies! You’ll be ‘Dead Right There’

    So you must know both the mental and physical material!

    At 63 yo, I may not have the overwhelming strength of a 18 yo, but I still have all the knowledge. They will never see me coming.

    I will see everything, and will avoid getting my ass in a crack.

    Protection is more than being the biggest dude/dudette out there, there will ALLWAYS be someone bigger/better/faster…

    so you have to be smarter…

    I’m still kickin’ it at 63, because I’m smarter, and work with my physical limitations. But there are a whole bunch enemies who never got a day older.

    So, pay attention to what these guys have to say, because, as my Grandma used to say, “Those that don’t listen, have to feel! ”
    Getting a whooping was never pleasant. Being dead ruins your whole day…

    Rock on! USN, USA, USN, USA!!!

  15. Very good stuff, makes me think I should learn more situations and work on my fitness
    I love speed but my body don’t seem balanced enough. All I do is slide but it makes me more defensive, thanks for the tip definitely useful

  16. Very well stated.
    You are 100% right.
    Just because a person has the the physical ability to defend themselves, without the mental preparedness they can easily be defeated.
    That’s why a well rounded person will typically win every time.

  17. being smart and already trained in what to do before it happens is best. Being an ex Vietnam Vet I know or learned first hand that being smart was best for me. I drove a truck hauling fuel ammo troops from the field etc that getting shot at was an easy thought to process before it happens.. I lucked out once was on roadside up to no good and was checking a brown bottle of # 33 beer for steel wool looking into the sun and all the time a sniper was linning up for his shot with sun to his back. all of a sudden I had the urge to just turn the bottle up and kill it quickly and when I flipped back my head there was 2 shots from an AK47 went right by my nose. I could feel the heat and smell the powder but the Lord saved me from that sniper. I am so glad the sniper wanted a good head shot or else I would have died on that road side.

  18. You’re right . It’s a balance of physical and mental . I’ve studied martial arts , my reflexes are fast , and after my last attack A year ago ,I would say I was also mentally strong because I had to think fast about the best move and had to have control over my actions which could’ve had me in trouble later . Self control was a big factor in my attack . Martial Arts teaches mental strength and control . I was injured but it could’ve been worse . I’m 51 and thinking of ways to stay in shape mentally and physically . I enjoyed your post . Thank you , Julie

  19. I am a 71 year old female, living out in the country. I don’t shoot straight and am in poor physical condition. I have health conditions, that don’t allow me to work out. I take care of my grandson, at take him to and from school. He’s only 12. What can I possibly do to ensure his safety?

  20. Much like the concept of yin and yang there must be balance in your mental and physical training. One without the other, soo limited.

  21. Lots of things come in to play here. have trained but in my opinion unless you are in mental state of your abilities an willingness to use them. You are not a full machine..As I go out to a unknown assignment I mentally set in motion the attitude of I will all I need to take on the task.not a person to be reckoned with.not ego. Just positive mind set. Et

  22. Hey Derek. At my age I look at it just one way I’m too old to run and too weak to fight so I pump my 12 gauge and take it from there

  23. Example: How many mentally incapacitated individuals function (at all) in physically demanding situations? None. American Ninja Warrior TV show. a good example.

  24. Good summation. Your kind of skill level and resulting confidence will win hands down over mental preparedness if you have to pick ONE but I agree that a balance is the optimum readiness.